Left unity appeal: Realise potential, avoid pitfalls
The Left Unity appeal has gathered a promising level of support, but runs the risk of repeating past mistakes, argues Harley Filben
Unity is in the air - again. After more than a decade of rapidly diminishing returns - from the initially promising Socialist Labour Party and Socialist Alliance, to the hopelessly compromised likes of Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party, to the undead Anti-Capitalist Initiative and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - the cry is being raised once more.
The voices this time, initially, were those of an unlikely duo: Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin, whose political trajectory has taken them into the ranks or orbit of too many different organisations to count. Some unity-mongers, who split at the drop of a hat (most recently, both found their positions in Respect untenable due to George Galloway’s crude defence of Julian Assange - his vocal opposition to abortion rights, stem cell research and the rest being perfectly kosher for these sensitive souls, apparently).
The song was made sweeter by Ken Loach, the most prominent socialist film-maker this country has produced, whose national treasure status - built on clip-show favourite Cathy, come home, Kes and other acknowledged classics of social realism - has proven impermeable even to laudatory films about the Irish Republican Army. He and comrade Burgin share political ancestry in Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party (comrade Loach also had a spell in Respect, although it predates the involvement of Hudson and Burgin).
Loach’s endorsement, it seems, was enough to force the eminently sensible idea of the left uniting in a single organisation far enough into the mainstream not to be easily ignored - and it hasn’t been. At least 5,000 people have signed Loach’s brief appeal and thus endorsed the idea of “a new political party of the left”,1 which is encouraging in and of itself. The website claims that 60 local supporting groups have been set up, although there is little evidence of their existence beyond a name and contact email for each. The names vary from Tusc members Nick Wrack and Will McMahon, to (recently ex) Green Party left Jim Jepps, to academic and poet Keston Sutherland, with groups in place from Fife to Exeter.
It must be conceded, on the other hand, that there is a great deal working against the new initiative. The appeal notes correctly that “the Labour Party is not presenting a strong opposition to austerity and instead appears to have wholeheartedly adopted neoliberal policy”, but it still arises at a time when Labour is in opposition, and thus the dynamics of the British political cycle are working against it. As we have repeatedly argued, the reactionary nature of the Labour Party is all too easily offset by the sense that people have nowhere else meaningful to go - not to say the brute force of the bourgeois consensus behind austerity bearing down on them.
Meanwhile, the appearance of these local groups is a positive thing, but it remains to be seen how many of them exist beyond the snazzy Google map that plots them on the Left Unity website. A measured and reasonable article in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s paper Solidarity puts the point quite nicely:
“If an activist group with a known record of political activity makes a call for unity, then people judge it partly according to their opinion of that record. If a splinter of a split of a splinter (just two people initially, as with Burgin and Hudson, or a few dozen, as with Counterfire) makes an appeal, and puts it in the vaguest terms ... then everyone can read into it what they want. Everyone who wants to build a socialist organisation, but is unsure about how to do it, and so holds back from joining any of the existing groups, can believe they have found a short cut. Just a click on a website, or a ‘like’ on Facebook, and they’re already part of the big movement they want!”2
The initiators in this case have the advantage of coming at it relatively clean - those in the know are aware of Burgin’s and Hudson’s backgrounds, but many others will know only Loach’s reputation as a conscientious filmmaker. They have the disadvantage of being ‘generals without armies’. The Socialist Workers Party, at least until its recent travails and probably still today, has the requisite organisational muscle to give even its most deluded pipe dreams some semblance of reality. Unless serious forces get on board, this latest unity call will face the problem of a simple lack of foot soldiers, for which Facebook likes and petition signatories are no substitute.
As for the political basis of this new formation, it should hardly surprise anyone to find that it is dreadful. The appeal notes that “The welfare state is being dismantled by the coalition government, bringing great suffering to the most vulnerable in society and eroding the living conditions of millions of ordinary people.” True enough.
We need instead to return to the ‘spirit of 45’, as the title of Ken Loach’s Nye Bevan nostalgia-fest documentary has it, when “the post-war generation transform[ed] the lives of ordinary people by bringing improved health, housing, education and social security to the people of Britain. We need to defend these achievements and continue the tradition of protecting the most vulnerable in society.”
A little more meat is hidden away on the website’s ‘About’ page, demanding “a new political formation which rejects austerity and war, advocates a greater democratisation of our society and institutions, and poses a new way of organising everyday life”.3 Exactly what this means is left to the imagination - which is just as well, because no imagination went into these platitudes at all.
More details come from an article in The Guardian by Loach, Hudson and Gilbert Achcar, the Mandelite historian whose most recent claim to fame was lurching bizarrely into a pro-imperialist line during the Libyan war.4 Here, the colours are nailed firmly to the post-war Labourite mast. As ever in such nostalgic eulogies, certain other enduring achievements of Attlee’s government - the bomb, the cementation of Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States - are politely overlooked.
The fundamental weakness here is a very old one. While our three authors are perfectly aware that Labour’s shift to the right in the last three decades is hardly unique to it, they fail to draw the obvious conclusion that this was not a matter of various party leaderships deciding, for one reason or another, to become left Thatcherites, but a function of global political shifts after the collapse of Stalinism. Likewise, the national health service and so forth was not the ‘achievement’ of principled politicians, but a strategy of containment in response to increased working class confidence after World War II.
When that strategy was abandoned, so was the ‘socialism’ of social democracy. Its material support had disappeared. Thus the Keynesian platitudes offered up by Hudson, Loach et al are fantasy politics. No objective basis exists for them.
The instinct for unity is a healthy and necessary one. It is fundamental to the existence and success of the workers’ movement. Inasmuch as this initiative gets off the ground, the potential exists for that unity to be made meaningful, by fleshing out its organisation and correcting the doomed politics that animate it. In order for that to happen, three conditions must be met.
Firstly, the resulting organisation must take the Labour Party seriously. We all know that its leadership is rightwing and detestable. But it is also organically connected to the trade unions and other mass organisations of the working class. These institutional links matter, even now that party and unions alike are hollowed out. Until that link is broken - and even after - Labour, and the instinctive support it continues to find in the working class, will remain a serious obstacle for forces to its left, which require strategic thinking to overcome.
Secondly, the existing far left must, equally, be taken seriously. The squabbling sects of which it is comprised may not have the institutional heft of Labour, but contain in their ranks the necessary raw material for building any new organisation from scratch. Left unity requires a battle against the bureaucratic sect regimes that currently perpetuate our divisions - not trying to ignore them.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the left needs to break with its habit of pushing alien politics in the hope of being popular. The vast majority of those of us able, equipped and (potentially) willing to build a united party of the left are committed on some level to Marxism, which - unlike stale 1945 nostalgia - has the potential to change the world for real.
It should be obvious that Kate Hudson and Ken Loach will not fight for this approach themselves. Communists should intervene in this latest left unity initiative, and help it realise its potential - and avoid its pitfalls.
2. ‘Left unity must be linked to real action’, March 27.
4. March 25.